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Friday, March 1, 2024

Arsenal made it a three-way title fight – but they still end up chasing Liverpool

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It’s a game that’s already building up quite enticingly but Sunday at Arsenal could end up being looked back on as something of a landmark.

It could well be the first direct title-race encounter that doesn’t involve Manchester City in seven years. That isn’t to say Pep Guardiola’s side won’t be involved but more how a potential multiple-front title race is developing. That touches on what this whole match is enlivened by. It is about potential. Both Arsenal and Liverpool look two of the most exciting young teams in Europe, and at least best-placed to step into any opening left by City.

That is, if an opening is left by City, of course. The entire season still feels dependent on whether the champions just put up a run that renders everything else irrelevant.

Darwin Nunez will be hoping to shake off a foot injury in time to face Arsenal at the Emirates on Sunday

(Getty)

For the moment, however, Arsenal vs Liverpool is more than just another big game between two of the old big six. It is a match that could yet have huge significance for the title race, that is enriched by their histories as much as their futures.

These are two of the three most successful clubs in England, with 32 titles between them. As with Manchester United and Liverpool, however, it is almost one of those historic quirks that their challenges or good periods have so rarely overlapped.

Although one of Arsenal or Liverpool have finished in the top two for 45.9 per cent of all English seasons, there have only been four campaigns where they have directly gone against each other. Another quirk is that Arsenal have won all bar one of them.

One was of course the most famous title showdown of all, when Michael Thomas won the league for Arsenal in the last minute of the season at Anfield. The 1973 campaign was close but not that close, Liverpool winning by three points in the days of two points for a win, with 1991 and 2002 really the London side out ahead on their own. Those two maybe more reflect how there has generally always been a distance between the clubs.

Not now.

There’s even an argument that this race has been augmented by how they have influenced each other. In building this team, and knowing exactly how difficult it is to keep pace with this City, Mikel Arteta naturally analysed a lot of what Jurgen Klopp did at Liverpool. It was an obvious example. 
One influence seems clear. Arsenal’s front three often looks modelled on Klopp’s famous front three, with the notional number nine offering the link for both wide players to run in and score.

Roberto Firmino scored 11 times against Arsenal for Liverpool, more than against any other club

(Getty)

There is even an occasional frustration in how Gabriel Jesus’s excellence in build-up is undercut by a frustration with his finishing, just as was experienced with Roberto Firmino. The older Brazilian, mind, eventually got into runs of form where he would score frequently and spectacularly – particularly against the Gunners.

There were indications of this in the Arsenal win that set up this game. Arteta’s side were sent on the way to victory at Nottingham Forest through a Jesus finish, albeit after he had missed one huge chance. The confidence within Arsenal is that he can build on that.

He certainly builds up play for both Gabriel Martinelli and Bukayo Saka, who are starting to look in the mood again.

Martinelli and Saka have 20 Premier League goals and assists between them this season

(Getty)

One major difference between those two and the prime duo of Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane is their ages. While the two African forwards were both 26 as Klopp’s first great team came to form, the Arsenal players are just 22. They still have a lot of developing to do, which is perhaps part of the reason they have endured a bit of a drop-off so far this season.

A crucial difference from recent weeks, however, is that there’s a freshness again. Those at the club believe that December’s staler performances were really down to a mental fatigue as much as anything, and that the recent January break has been revitalising.

All of this had fostered excitement that Arsenal will now be the team to put it up to City, except Liverpool have been revitalised in a grander sense.

As Klopp said in a recent interview on Sky, even he has been pleasantly surprised by how quickly this new team has come together. You could understand an element of aggravation about that for Arsenal. They’ve been striving to get to that level, with Arteta carefully considering every move and every piece… and then Liverpool just overtake them again.

Liverpool head to the Emirates five points clear of Arsenal at the top

(Getty)

Perhaps it points to Klopp’s greater experience in team-building, if also the multiplying effect that seems to happen when he gets a team right. It’s not just that there’s a force to Liverpool again. There’s a new depth, illustrated by how some of the young players just slot in. Above all, there’s Conor Bradley.

It adds edge to Sunday’s game. It also adds a further poignancy, if motivation, to this huge decision Klopp took back in November. This team feels like the start of something but it will also be the end of something.

Those players now want to do this for Klopp, to give him the second title they feel he deserves. Manchester City have barred the way for all of that time. Arsenal are now in view.

It may mean, in Klopp’s last days at the club, having won everything and seen almost everything, there could be something new. There could be a title race involving someone other than City. Sunday will maybe tell if that’s the case.

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